20 Domestic man

There, it was plain as day. She didn't want Matthew in her life anymore.

Frances’ breath hitched then, wondering what his answer would be, berating herself for putting too much stock into his opinion. After all, she was the only one who could decide what was right for her… still, his acceptance meant so much. And he bestowed him without a second though, dismissing her shame with the barest tilt of his hand.

— “It is understandable. It is a great burden to try and haul another like this, too great for any human, let alone someone who has to handle so much pressure already.”

Tears welled in her eyes and Frances dipped her head for a precious second, trying to blink them away.

— “Have you spoken with your friends ?”, he gently asked.

How could she not be grateful, when he tried to distract her from her aches ? With a sniffle, the young woman regained composure.

— “My best friend, at home, but she’s… particular with her relationships.”

Father Tristan’s raised eyebrows above the rim of his cup told her she would have to elaborate. The fact that Nad was currently sleeping with a boyfriend, thinking of the one she loved wasn't too relevant. It didn't meant much to her, all that mess.

Now, another question rose in Frances' mind; why had she not spoken to them yet ?

— “I am at loss, Tristan. Here in school, I am afraid of the consequences. I don’t want anyone to think I am available. I’m not, and I don’t want to handle that kind of pressure yet.”

Father Tristan set his mug on the table, his lips pursed.

— “You're thinking of Luke ?”

And the words felt like gravel in his mouth. Frances nibbled on her lower lip, avoiding his eyes.

— “Yes. I have considered your words at length about friendship and flirting. The signs are there. Friends that want to be out of the friend zone, you know ? You were right, I was so entranced by Matthew that I didn’t even see it”

Frances shivered; why did it seem so cold suddenly ?

— “Do you think many of your friends might make an attempt”, he asked without emotion.

— “One and a half ?”, she chanced with a shy smile.

Tristan smirked at her attempt at levity. She truly was a scientific through and through, and underestimated her influence. Deep down, though, it bothered him. Too much. Way too much. Couldn’t they see, those stupid young men, how out of their league she was ? Frances deserved so much more. And somehow, it made him slightly bitter to know that he couldn’t keep her by his side and chose a man worthy to be her companion. So it was with aggravation that he sighed.

— “The throes of being a beautiful woman.”

Her lower lip was caught again between her teeth and he longed to yank it out, only to salvage the poor appendage from further abuse. He cursed the table, albeit small, that separated them. An indispensable object that prevented him from reaching out.

— “So I should be cold and heartless ? Refrain from trying to make friends ?”

Tristan sighed then; she looked so defeated. So weary. Such a shame to diminish her good disposition when she was a delight. Like an angel roaming the earth, pushed to protect herself and hide her inner light.

— “It would be a crime. They will just have to learn that your gentle disposition doesn't mean you welcome their sollicitations.”

His words seemed to reach her, for her warm chocolate eyes sent him waves of gratefulness.

— “Is it tedious, you know, to maintain distance with people I would like to be friends with”

— “Perhaps it would be easier if you had more female friends ?”

She nodded absently, unconvinced by his reasoning.

— “I used to have some, it didn’t end so well. I’ve been wary of female companionship ever since, and have trouble bonding with them. But I’m trying. Nad is one of those, at home. And I think I have found a trustworthy one in school."

— "Morgana ?"

Frances gave him a surprised look; what kind of memory did he possess, really, to remember a name she'd given once ?

— "No. Maëlle, her roomate. I just … I need time to open up again.”

Tristan was touched by the trust she placed in him but didn’t know how to express it. She laid bare her past hurts and history for him to judge and dispose without a second thought; a proof that he was worth collecting her confession. And if plenty of parishionners did it every day, it didn’t feel the same. Perhaps because she had not been raised a catholic, or wasn’t part of his parish… Perhaps… because she was different, and meant something else to him… Perhaps…

— “Do you truly find me beautiful ?", she eventually asked.

The priest’s eyebrows rose, surprised by this turn of events so unlike her. Was she fishing for compliment now ? Given her current predicament, he couldn’t blame her yet… it didn’t sit well with him. So it was with a clipped tone that he responded.

— “You don’t need me to tell you. You must have heard it before.”

Frances physically recoiled at once, her eyes misting over. A pang of regret pinched his heart and Tristan breathed out. Stupid, stupid defenses ! She confided her insecurities, and he lashed out at her like a high school bully ! Tristan could have kicked himself for his lack of tact.

— “I’m sorry, Frances. I just assumed… you already knew about it.”

His smooth voice, soothing, was enough to appease her for she met his eyes squarely. There was not an ounce of false modesty in her words as she explained her vision.

— “I… Matthew used to say so, right before he told me how his ex was magnificent. And love makes us blind anyway so… I didn't know where to stand, really."

— “You can’t be serious”, he blurted out.

How could she ignore the beauty of her high cheekbones and almond eyes ? The nobility of her posture, the entrancing dance of her very long hair ? The sensuality of those rosy lips that she mistreated so often ? True, she wasn’t those classic beauties from magazines with their sharp features and snobbish gaze. But her charm was unmatched, enhanced by her gentle disposition and the warmth of her gaze.

— “I wasn’t in the ‘beautiful’ bunch with my female friends, people flirted with them, not with me. I was the side kick”

Tristan watched her, incredulous, barely keeping his mouth from gaping open. Therein lied the issue with female friends; she had probably hung about a set of school princesses who tried to keep her subdued as her personality – and her beauty - grew. The puzzle of Frances was becoming a clear picture now; since she always thought the best of others, she was prone to being manipulated by people who wanted to keep her under their thrall. Hence her sense of freedom now that her boyfriend was becoming an ‘ex’. Hence the reason why she had trouble trusting people.

— “Frances. You push away flirting attempts away very effectively. You’re not interested, and men will catch on that, turning to a more…er… open girl”

He nearly blushed at those words; it wasn’t often that he had to tread the path of seduction. Even if Tristan understood how the world worked, it didn’t mean he had to like it. Frances, for her part, seemed to consider his words as she nibbled on her finger before coming to the same conclusion.

— “Flirting is just another lie. It’s so false.”

Tristan froze for a moment, wondering if a 22 years old woman – a gorgeous one - had really said those words to his face. Blinking, he checked that Frances was still here, sitting at his table with a mug of herbal tea before delivering his own harsh vision of modern society.

— “Yes. I can’t believe women fall for it.”

She winced comically, the words flowing out of her mouth indignantly. Unaware that she was going to cause him a heart attack.

— “Neither do it. It’s like this guy in school, he comes to me and asks me what underwear I am wearing. Does he think I'm going to fall in his arms for his boldness?”

Tristan’s chair clanked on the floor as he abruptly stood, blood draining from his face.

— “WHAT ?”, he bellowed. “What is that scum asking ???”

Frances froze, her heart beating a thousand miles a minute. Before her stood Father Tristan in his full wrath, his eyes fierce, ready to lay waste on any battlefield. And if she’d caught a glimpse of how dangerous he could be, she was now positive that something truly terrifying would happen to anyone opposing him right now.

He stood, livid, in the studio and the walls seemed too small to enclose his raw power. Frances pushed her chair back slowly, standing on wobbly legs. Her first instinct was to take a step back… so She took a deep breath, and approached him as if he was a wild animal. Her presence caused him to blink, his voice sounding nearly deformed from the clenching of his jaw.

— “You must denounce that man at once, Frances. This is abuse.”

Her shoulders tense, the young woman lifted her hands. A shiver tried to crawl up her spine, and she tried hard to contain it as it shook her from waist to neck.

— “Yeah. I know. You’re not the first one who said so. I tried to push him away a few times, but he doesn’t want to understand. It’s not a big deal, I will handle it.”

Oops, wrong words. Tristan glared now. The simmering anger radiated so strongly that she cursed herself for letting the matter rest for so long.

— “This is sexual harassment, Frances. It is a big deal…”

He looked positively deadly, and truth be told, her body fought not to take another step back. His jaw clenched and unclenched like this, hazel eyes glaring daggers.

— “I’ll find this young man and believe me, he will understand!”

She reached for his hand without thinking, causing his body to still. The warmth of his fingers barely registered before she let go, as if scalded.

— “Don’t ! I’ll handle it. Ok ? I just had so much on my plate until now, I wasn’t ready with another battle”

For a long moment, Father Tristan considered her, his eyes relentless.

— "Why don't you go to the director, Frances?"

Her fists clenched over the table, and it took all his willpower not to reach out.

— "Because I am ashamed, all right ? And this guy will get in trouble for something stupid. You said so yourself, it's my fault guys latch onto me. What with Luke, and I didn't even realise it. I probably give signals I shouldn't, right ?"

His stomach rolled and twisted so painfully that his lungs refused to breathe in. What ? Her fault ? Is that what she had retained from his warnings ? It was wrong, so very wrong, to hear her shoulder responsibility for harassment. Tristan ground his teeth together.

— "Frances."

His voice was so strained that her head jerked up. She didn't say a word, but held his gaze with such intensity that he was at loss for words.

— "It is not your fault. It will never be your fault. Do not mistake me, please. This behaviour is unacceptable, whatever the signals you might be giving or not."

The young woman nodded, unsure, until his own posture relaxed slightly. A long, heavy breath passed her lips at the storm receded in his eyes ; the priest cursed himself. Where did that anger come from to take hold of him so easily ? How long since his emotions had betrayed him, throwing control to the wind ? It was dangerous ground indeed he was treading, all for the sake of Frances’ safety. He should have walked away from her; she endangered his poise and his vows. Yet, he couldn’t let her go. She was so innocent, so brilliant, so gentle… the wolves of reality would eat her alive, right ?

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